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Editor's Viewpoint

Economic outlook for Northern Ireland remains bleak

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'The most at risk sectors are hospitality, tourism and retail which depend on footfall but that is curbed by social distancing rules and customer concerns about their health in confined spaces.' (Greene King/PA)

'The most at risk sectors are hospitality, tourism and retail which depend on footfall but that is curbed by social distancing rules and customer concerns about their health in confined spaces.' (Greene King/PA)

'The most at risk sectors are hospitality, tourism and retail which depend on footfall but that is curbed by social distancing rules and customer concerns about their health in confined spaces.' (Greene King/PA)

Northern Ireland's economy shrank by almost 3% in the first three months of this year - the biggest quarterly fall on record - but that could only be a foretaste of what is to come if doomsday predictions by a respected economist come true.

Neil Gibson's warning that the province will do well to stop unemployment reaching 100,000 by the end of this year is no fanciful suggestion given the trends so far this year, especially since lockdown.

At the beginning of the year unemployment was at a record low, better than the figures for the UK as a whole, the EU or the Republic of Ireland, but the jobless total has doubled since march and now stands at a shocking 63,000.

And with employers proposing large numbers of redundancies in coming months, the outlook is bleak to put it at its mildest.

Yesterday it was announced that bookseller Eason is to close its seven stores in the province with the loss of 144 jobs.

As government support measures begin to taper down it will be amazing if other employers do not follow suit. With 240,000 people in the province on furlough and 76,000 on self-employed schemes, the potential for other even larger scale redundancies is obvious.

The most at risk sectors are hospitality, tourism and retail which depend on footfall but that is curbed by social distancing rules and customer concerns about their health in confined spaces.

Assuring customers of safety is a herculean task for those sectors in particular and all of them are vital to the local economy. If they fail to bounce back Mr Gibson's prediction could well be generous.

His call to the public to do what they can to help businesses is well meant and certainly if everyone made a shopping trip, went to a pub or restaurant or visited a tourist attraction at least once a week it would make a significant impact.

But fears of a second spike - the Republic has had to pause some of its lockdown relaxation because the R number has risen well over the desired figure of 1 - is making significant numbers of people cautious about dropping their guard.

And, of course, at the end of the year there is the spectre of Brexit. Quite how it will play out is still unknown and that is bound to create even more uncertainty among the business community at a time when the global pandemic makes creating new trading relationships virtually impossible.

Belfast Telegraph